Film review: Where's mystery in the river Nile?

Published: Friday, Jan. 5 2007 12:31 a.m. MST

MYSTERY OF THE NILE — *** — Large-screen documentary about the African river; not rated, probable G (violence).

"Mystery of the Nile" is filled with sweeping visual grandeur and awe for ancient African history. But the only mystery about it is why it got that title.

The film references Nile mysteries, such as the huge river's elusive source. But the debates of 1800s explorers were settled long ago, and there's little research or sleuthing during the film's journey to the Mediterranean Sea.

Rather than mystery, the film's focus is endurance and survival, as a small crew braves rapids, storms, waterfalls, crocodiles, malaria, horrid heat and even an armed bandit to navigate the river during a four-month period.

The adventure is propelled less by curiosity than a macho assault on the record book. In that sense, "Mystery of the Nile" is little different from an IMAX movie about scaling Mount Everest. In a way, the Nile is the Everest of rivers.

No one, the film says, has navigated the Nile's 3,260 miles before this wild bunch. They're led by geophysicist Pasquale Scaturro, who narrates.

The man we don't see or hear is Spanish filmmaker Jordi Llompart, whose IMAX crew often flies by to capture the travelers in awesome vistas.

Along the way, the expedition stops to meet uniformly friendly locals (well, except for that bandit) in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. For foreign interlopers, the adventurers seem irresistible. They also meet camels and hippos and check out ancient ruins. But those things could have been achieved without putting six people in danger.

The film is strongly scored with haunting African tribal music, and Scaturro captures sensational moments — such as a raft submerging in rapids — with unwieldy IMAX equipment. (He also had to re-create a scene for a stormy lake crossing.)

Along with its scenery, the film is graced by the crew's strong spirit — until hardships mount and Scaturro almost gives up. But after a breather, they press ahead, and Cairo's metropolitan towers are a striking sight at journey's end. No, they don't compare to the pyramids, but after this harrowing trip, they do look inviting.

"Mystery of the Nile" is not rated but would probably receive a G for minor violence. Running time: 48 minutes.

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